This article originally appeared in the August 1990 issue of The Instrumentalist.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to observe a great many successful band, orchestra, and choir directors. Although I’m not sure I could chart with 100% accuracy the personality of a successful director, I’ve discovered that these people exhibit recognizable success characteristics. For example, I’ve never met a truly successful band or orchestra director who blamed other people for his own mistakes.
Success in public school music is not measured in expensive suits or handmade Italian leather shoes, nor is it a luxury car or condominium. Opinions vary as to the precise definition, ranging from “a long string of 1st Division contest ratings” to “a super large music program in which a cast of thousands is enrolled.” Some may describe a successful director as one whose ensembles tour across the nation to perform at major parades or national music conventions. Others limit the description of successful to directors whose groups have been awarded the regional Heisman trophy for music, such as State Honor Band.
Whatever definition you choose, you’ll find that successful people share similar characteristics. The following examples describe qualities of many successful directors I know.
Energy. Successful directors snap, crackle, and pop with energy. If they get tired, they don’t show it. When everyone else is exhausted, they are just getting warmed up.
Dean Killion, originally a band director in Nebraska and later transplanted to Texas Tech University, had enough energy to light New York City. I was a student secretary in his office a number of years ago and remember a particularly long and grueling trip to a football game from which we returned in the wee small hours of the morning. When our office opened I sat at my desk sleepily nursing a cup of coffee, but Killion ran into the office as if he were completely rested and fresh.
Uncompromising Standards. A 10-foot sign that stretches across the band hall at Odessa Texas Permian High School rehearsal area proclaims to all who enter that Quality is Uncompromising. When the school opened in the fall of 1959, the band and orchestra began a string of sweepstakes that today remains unbroken. J.R. McEntyre, who directed both groups, worked with singleminded purpose: to achieve the highest standard of musical excellence. It was not possible to get his approval of an unmusical phrase, a sloppy entrance, or a tangled run. Until he got what he wanted, students did it over and over. He didn’t let anyone give a bad performance. It was that simple.
Being Organized. Organization means more than a clean desk. It means being prepared for rehearsal: taping your practice session, studying scores, and making notes. Roger Winslow, recently retired from L.D. Bell High School in north Texas, was driven, exacting, and as organized as the Dewey Decimal system. He never wasted a moment of rehearsal time because he studied the previous day’s tape, then planned precisely what he needed to correct and improve. Rather than running through a piece, stopping where he encountered errors, Winslow focused on the trouble areas, repairing them deftly and swiftly. His preparation of a 45-minute contest program during a 50-minute class period was true mastery.
Much of what Winslow achieved resulted from the daily routines he set up early in the school year. He trained each child in proper rehearsal etiquette, such as entering the room, checking the board for messages, and observing rehearsal order. The daily warmup chorale took care of ear training, balance, blend, and tuning. Winslow’s rehearsals took on the air of my father’s admonitions: “When will you have time to do it over if you don’t have time to do it right? Just do it right to begin with.”
An Inquisitive Nature. Successful directors continue to learn about their profession by reading or even going back to school to take graduate courses or workshops. During conventions you don’t see them at the snack bar but in the front rows of the clinic sessions, listening, taking notes, asking questions.
William Revelli, the dean of American bandmasters, began his career as a string player. Refusing to be hampered by his lack of practical knowledge of band instruments, he proceeded to Chicago to study privately with members of the Chicago Symphony. After achieving success with bands in Hobart, Indiana, he continued his quest for knowledge and improvement as a musician by listening to recordings of major symphony orchestras following each school band practice. His desire to improve and raise his standards continued in his own band rehearsals and in every clinic he conducted. Revelli has passed on the importance of continuing education to generations of admiring teachers across the nation.
Sharing the Credit. Successful people reward and give public credit to others for a job well done. Acknowledging help from associates, students, and parents is a small and easily accomplished act of generosity that they’ll never forget.
Over the years I’ve seen the market flooded with certificates of appreciation, and now with computer programs to generate personal certificates the possibilities are limitless. Many of us depend solely on this type of recognition; but Randy Storie of Midland, Texas rewards members of his band and orchestra with Good Guy awards, ranging from certificates for McDonald’s hamburgers to pencils inscribed with the statement “I Love Music.” Storie and his officers catch students in the act of doing a good job and praise them publicly. Parents who assist in myriad ways are acknowledged in concert programs and newsletters. Well-wishers find Storie accepting compliments about a performance, and responding with kudos for his private teachers and parents. Sharing credit has earned him undying loyalty from his supporters.
Optimism. Successful people are optimistic by nature. They believe they can make things better. They are positive.
James Croft of Florida State University guest-conducted the Texas All-State Concert Band (the second band) the year I served as organizer. There ought to be no stigma attached to making a second all-state band, but students who do often feel like losers, and can be hostile, belligerent, or frustrated and angry with themselves. The first rehearsal with them is critical, but on the morning of our first rehearsal the hotel operator forgot to give Croft his wake-up call. With no time to prepare, or even to eat breakfast, Croft just smiled, strode to the rehearsal, and turned what could have been a disaster into a great day. His philosophy is, “Every day I get up in the morning and tell myself something great is going to happen, and if it hasn’t happened by lunchtime, I make it happen.”
Interest in Students. Some egomaniacs clamber up the ladder of success ruthlessly stepping on everyone in the way. The real jewels in our profession shine through their students. Instead of using their ensembles to build a personal reputation, they emphasize the growth and well-being of each young person whose lives they touch.
Clarence Sawhill of U.C.L.A. was one of the kindest gentlemen I ever met. He also knew the most about making music. Sawhill would spend the same amount of time patiently explaining things to a young novice band camper as he would to a graduate level student. He respected every student, young or old, with whom he came in contact. He inspired his bands to greatness by treating everyone with kindness and love, and having those feelings radiate from the music.
A Positive, Patient, and Persistent Outlook. Just as the mighty oak needs time to grow, young musicians mature slowly. Teachers cannot speed up the process just because we know the right answers, and as all master teachers can testify, telling is not teaching.
Rick Lambrecht of El Paso realizes that correcting a child once ensures nothing; he will only develop skills through correct fundamentals and proper techiques. In dealing with today’s generation, youngsters who thrive on instant gratification, Lambrecht has mastered the arts of patience and persistence. One week before a concert and sight-reading competition I watched Rick’s hour-long full band rehearsal. Of those 60 minutes, he spent 30 of them working on fundamentals: a tone study, tonguing and style exercises, long tones, tuning, and balancing the sound. His students, who were anxious about the notes of the contest pieces, saw his emphasis not on the competition, but on learning to play their instrument well. Lambrecht doesn’t pay lip service to correct fundamentals; he and his bands live them on a daily basis. The result is a band that can play anything put in front of it, a truly musical group.
Confidence. The general run-of-the-mill director looks at the printed page and faithfully reproduces every ritard (on time), every dynamic (and only those indicated). A musically successful director has confidence in his ability to interpret and to take musical risks.
Being creative is a little like being the lead dog on an Alaskan dog sled. He’s the only one with a change of scenery. While most American marching bands in the 1950s formed stick figures and performed picture show themes for football halftime entertainment, Texas Christian University director Jim Jacobson looked for some new scenery and dazzled his audiences with floating, sliding, and diminishing diamonds, thereby writing a new chapter in the history of American marching bands.
Bear in mind that the people who succeeded over the long haul have most, if not all, of these qualities, and one more that matters the most. It requires a real, genuine, passionate interest in what they’re doing, whether it’s teaching marching band or show choir, or directing a jazz band or symphony orchestra. They care. Caring about the details that other people forget, don’t want to be bothered with, or are willing to leave to someone else is what makes for real success.